Magical meals, Fantastical feasts, and legendary lunches pepper high fantasy works and bring the fantasy world a step closer to home. Fantasy food is a cornerstone in world building. Meals can help fully immerse the reader and offer a sensible place for characters to relax, gather information, or celebrate victories. Food can even operate as a plot point in cases like ambrosia (God’s food found in God of Gears on Mythrill as well as the Percy Jackson series).
By default, it is easiest to model dishes off known dishes we encounter every day, but you must consider your plot and locations for best results. For food to fit smoothly with your world look at what culture you are modeling the characters after. For example, if your story is a cyberpunk future in which China is the superpower of the world, then you need to make sure most of the dishes are Chinese or have influences from that culture either in preparation/cooking techniques, presentation, or ingredient use. If your fantasy culture is not found on Earth, then what type of vegetation and animals are in the area? What do they taste similar to? Then use that information to match it up with dishes found in the world.
Another way you can pull real food into your world is by aesthetics. You need a dish to contain bread that’s black? Is food coloring available? Are there spices or plants that naturally dye items? Are there dishes in the real world that have this otherworldly item? You’d be happy to learn that Russia has a traditional black bread (a type of rye bread), and that Japan had a squid ink burgers and pizzas for a while.
What if you wanted it to also have magical properties in addition to the unusual color? You could make something up or you could look at the medical/science fields for a more plausible answer. According to Mayo Clinic, activated charcoal is used in the emergency treatment of certain kinds of poisoning. It helps prevent the poison from being absorbed from the stomach into the body. Sometimes, several doses of activated charcoal are needed to treat severe poisoning. It can reduce stomach swelling, gas, reduce cholesterol, and treat problems of biliary flow. There is sourdough bread that is mixed with active charcoal. It won’t have the same potency of taking it straight but could suit fantasy needs.
The next point you need to look at is the most important, Taste. Taste is a multilayered problem. You have the ingredients, the cooking, and the taste. Each one of these items affects the others. For example, a raw apple tastes different than one that has been dipped in chocolate or one that has been baked into a pie. Furthermore, adding caramel to an apple will give you a different taste than adding peanut butter. Both offer the same color, but completely different flavor profiles. In terms of amount and how it plays with taste, a slice of pie is more filling than a single apple slice and will affect your character’s hunger in different ways and whether the taste lingers on the tongue. It may also adversely affect the character’s health if they are diabetic or not. However, if they do have some kind of medical issue, you could write a solution using how it is prepared.
The preparation and cooking techniques will change the outcome. A bag of salt may dehydrate them. However, if the preparation uses a bag of salt to dehydrate the meat and then wiped off afterwards the character will be fine. You need to understand how the characters will cook this food or if they will cook it at all. If you know what outcome you want, then you can work backwards to find the solution. Or if you know the ingredients you can look up what kinds of things it can make in different cultures.
Though, please bear in mind what the character has access to. They cannot catch a fish if they have no fishing gear or a way to make the gear/use magic to kill the fish. Rarely will they have access to anything other than a fire. Even if they manage to get to a stone oven, chances are it’s more like the earlier ones. Those did not get anywhere near as hot as modern-day ones. In fact, the lower temperatures lent themselves to caring for preemies. At the turn of the 20th century, early babies were not expected to survive. The parents’ options were to keep the baby warm in a pot, an oven or in bed with them to try to mimic the warmth of the womb. These facts make food poisoning more likely for your characters but could offer a solution or a plot point regarding how they care for their health/food.
The final thing to take into consideration is the environment/circumstances. When making fantasy food, ambiance, plating, pairing, and even mental state play a supporting role. The place in which the characters eat will affect the food. If you are eating next to a restroom the smells will affect your taste buds due to biology. However, if you are sitting in a fragrant garden, lightly flavored tea will lend itself to your taste buds far better.
Even how you eat the food will affect it. Silver utensils have been shown to help with building a strong metabolism while strengthening immunity. It’s even been proven that they prevent several diseases. Or you want your character to eat it by breathing. I know that sounds crazy, but this is possible. An example is alcohol vapors. They are produced by heating up alcohol or pouring it over dry ice (potentially harmful or even deadly if prepared incorrectly due to how dry ice affects the body). It’s absorbed into your bloodstream by inhaling alcohol vapors via a cloud or even through a balloon shot. People who inhale alcohol vapors get drunk very quickly, because the alcohol goes straight to the brain. This can cause severe alcohol poisoning that isn’t easily remedied and may require medical attention, but it could be used for fancier dwarves who are known to have a high tolerance in your fantasy world.
Now you can be in the perfect setting and know how they will partake in the food and beverage, but improper plating can change your character’s reactions. If everything is tossed on the plate, chances are food may mix or there may be too much of some ingredients. This will change the flavor profile of the items or get your characters sick. If this is not the outcome you want, you should consider how much is put on the plate and what may touch.
On a more avant-garde note, food can tell a story, so why shouldn’t you use the food/plating to tell a story within your story? The plating may hint at someone’s hate or love for another character. It may represent a tradition or symbolize something your character is going through or will go through. It can even be a revolting traditional dish, for example the Hákarl, Iceland's Fermented Shark, is an ancient dish. The shark is one of the few things to survive in those freezing waters, but it is highly toxic when fresh, due to its extremely high content of urea. It must be rotten for a while before you can eat it without poisoning yourself. To stomach this dish many pair it with a strong drink. Which leads into the next part of this point, pairings.
Food and drinks are often talked about in pairings. Common examples include chocolate and strawberries, meat and wine, and even non-food items like popcorn and movies or incense and tea. Unsure if two flavors work together and don’t have the money to go try it yourself? A google search usually will tell you what flavors work together. There are lots of books and websites to advise you on what to pair with what, but what if you want to go outside the box? When making an uncommon pairing, I would advise trying it in real life if possible. Does this pairing decrease the taste of the overall experience or does it assist it and take it to new heights? Does the tongue need a palate cleanser before eating/drinking the next course, like water or ginger? These are all key factors to know before writing about your character’s feast.
The final part of this point is the circumstances/mental state. Are they sick? Are they being force fed? Are they celebrating something? How you perceive something will change the food. If someone you love makes you your favorite soup, chances are it will be the best soup in the world; though a stranger to that person will prefer the soup made by a professional chef. The same will be true of the characters. If they hate someone, they will be less likely to eat food made by that person and that person may inadvertently affect the food. This comes up occasionally in pagan practices when people infuse poor intentions into food to make someone sick.
Knowing all the above, I’m sure you’re wondering how this looks when applying it to your story. To answer this question, I’ve included an extended example from God of Gears Season 1 Episode 70:
“Shall we continue the sampling of our hors d'oeuvres?” The boss menacingly commented, raising his ominous fingers.
One final time, our bodies relinquished control to the sadistic puppeteer and grabbed the last item. The exterior of the bread felt hard, but carried ample give, informing me of its softer interior. Slowly, my arm raised the deadly delicacy to my mouth ignoring every command my brain gave. This sorcerous onslaught injected terror into my heart as my mouth forced itself open. Glancing at the boss, I found him relishing my horrified side eyed stare as the sweet doughy scent of the slowly advancing food hit my nose. A duet of savory and sweet with the faintest hint of flour that sang to my nostrils.
The firm texture of the crust tantalized my teeth, rubbing against my gums encouragingly, while the soft interior hugged the groves and blanketed my tongue. Notes of chocolate conquered my taste buds for the briefest of moments. Only to be outshone by the harmony of a perfect raspberry honey jam that brought a chorus of candied maple bacon. The desert concoction blossomed in my mouth as my tastebuds demanded the show to go on. Unable to resist this otherworldly breakfast side, I relaxed my body and allowed the strange magic to keep advancing the meal. I no longer cared that I had lost my autonomy. I only cared about this addictive substance sliding down my throat.
Gurgled screams refocused my eyes on my fellow competitors as I finished swallowing the last of the robust morsel. Immediately, I felt sick to my stomach.
In that previous example, I put into practice many of the points I referenced earlier. The passages bring the meal to life and assist with the characters’ emotions; as well as moving the plot along. It can take practice, but the steps to making a fantasy meal will become second nature as you continue to write. Hopefully, this article has made your fantasy world more vibrant and aided you into becoming a better author.
About the Author: Raven Diamond is the author of God of Gears and Full Moon King exclusively on Mythrill. She is also an award nominated Singer/Songwriter (NAMA 2019 Controlled) and has several comic series on top of published shorts, poems, and novels. She can write in almost any genre and loves redefining the lines of Good and Evil in her stories alongside showing the world from unique perspectives. She loves learning new skills and trying new things. When this jack of all trades isn’t tinkering on inventions or assisting her brother with their company, she likes reading, gaming, and spending time with her family. www.ravendiamond.com